Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Finally, the registry comes before the House, a summation . . . .

Well the gun-registry vote is finally here. And though I obviously tended in favor of the gun registry from the beginning, I have tried to look at all the arguments and listen carefully. On the pro gun-registry side I listened to  many testimonials from police and victims of domestic violence who claimed that the gun-registry has saved lives. I would call this approach a 'strong' argument; not because it is necessarily true but I use it in the more philosophical sense that it makes 'positive' claims rather than negative ones and because even if the claims are true in only a few cases among the many then this is very significant. On the anti-gun-registry side I have heard essentially only one coherent argument, to wit; that it is a costly waste of resources and had no measurable effect. I call this a 'weak' argument; again in the philosophical sense in as much as it makes a 'negative' claim. (I have, of course, heard a number of people make pseudo-NRA arguments about the government secretly wanting to take everyone's guns in the dead of night but I don't believe these arguments qualify as meaningful and largely belong to the aluminum-foil hat crowd.) The essential problem with the 'resources' argument, as far as I can see, is that the gun-registry operating cost is relatively small in relation to other programs (a single murder investigation can cost more than the entire annual cost of operating the gun-registry) and in relation to overall government expenditure. And if only one of the many testimonials from police or victims of domestic violence is true, this outweighs, in my mind, the relatively small cost. Now another problem with many of the anti-gun registry arguments out there is that a lot of the people who say it is a waste of resources also make the argument that it 'criminalizes' law-abiding citizens and that all the criminals who own guns are not going to register anyway. Americans will be familiar with this type of argument in the form of the adage "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." The problem with these NRA style arguments is that they can be applied to any and all guns. Thus the logical conclusion of this argument is that we should not have any gun-registry program, and arguably no gun laws at all, because if it applies to long-guns why shouldn't these people apply it to hand-guns. And the answer, of course, is not a logical one but an ideological one. Harper and the Conservatives know that this is the logical conclusion of this argument that I have heard many MPs make, but they would never publicly advocate for the end of all gun laws because they know it would be political suicide.

Now in philosophical terms "weak" arguments are usually easier to make because they require a lower standard of evidence and therefor are just more simple and straightforward. The problems here are that, as I tried to show (albeit very briefly), the implications of the "weak" arguments are troubling and potentially dangerous. Furthermore, accepting the weak argument could potentially cost lives in exchange for relatively small financial savings. On the other hand, the worst we can say in relation to accepting the "strong" argument here is that it will cost a very small fraction of overall policing costs and that a few people will be inconvenienced. However, the best we can hope for in accepting the strong argument is that numerous lives will be saved. It seems very clear to me that simple rational discourse favours the continuation of the gun-registry while the vote to kill it fails very straightforward rational tests.

Let me make it more clear in point form

Arguments Against
-waste of resources
-inconvenience to those who must register
-registering guns only targets law-abiding citizens, criminals won't register

Potential downside (and implications) of these arguments
-lives could be unnecessarily lost
-no gun law (at least registration laws) are effective or make a difference

Potential upside of these arguments
-the government will save a few dollars
-gun owners will not be inconvenienced

Arguments for
-lives have been (and will continue to be) saved

Potential downside of the arguments for
-it has cost (and will continue to cost) money
-a few gun-owners will be inconvenienced

Potential upside of these arguments
-lives will be saved

I think the rational argument is pretty clear. Of course, rationality is by no means the only test of normative claims, but it is the one that most people claim is most important in relation to such a bill. On the other hand, this Conservative government has demonstrated time and again that it is not interested in any kind of rational discourse or evidence.

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